We can be heroes! Finding your community on iNaturalist

When Science Met Nature…

Jessica’s Science Blog – 05.08.17

Do you like leisurely walks through the woods? Did you ever stop and wonder what that water plant is called, you know, the one with the showy yellow flowers? Great! But does your curiosity tug at you until you can “ID” said plant? Now, how about fungi? Lichens? Mosses? Wait, mosses and lichens, you say, I barely even notice them!

Now, what if you’re not exactly a seasoned naturalist, but you’ll take any excuse to photograph wildlife with your trusty telephoto? Not to worry, even if you only answered with aplomb to a couple of these questions, rest assured that you’ve got what it takes to be a citizen scientist! Dust off your smartphone’s camera and lace up a pair of hiking boots because you’re about to make a contribution to the iNaturalist.org community.

As an ecologist and science educator based in New England, I spend a lot of time learning and teaching about plants that inhabit forest and field. On one happy occasion, I got to teach beach ecology on the shoreline of the Long Island Sound, but I quickly discovered that most of the plants had me scratching my head. Fear not, iNaturalist can educate you on even the most obscure or unfamiliar life forms, from birds to bacteria, there is a specialized community of naturalists and scientists waiting to identify your specimen from a picture.

Common snapping turtle (Chelydra s. serpentine) observed in the UConn Forest

Green frog (Rana clamitans) observed in the UConn Forest

Recently, in celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, the 2016 Connecticut State BioBlitz assembled hundreds of scientists and volunteers to catalogue the diversity of life in the greater Hartford area. Their efforts, made possible in part from the thousands of observations compiled in iNaturalist, paid off and smashed all previous world records, at 2,765 species identified in one day! Where else can you interact in real time with world class scientists, naturalists, hobbyists, and amateur photographers?

Northern black racer (Coluber constrictor) observed in the UConn Forest

Not to mention that most science is off-limits to the general public, locked away in online journals with sky-high subscription fees. I like that iNaturalist is different. It harkens back to the days when Charles Darwin, as a young naturalist, sailed to the Galapagos Islands to collect and identify specimens as part of his Voyage of the Beagle. iNaturalist puts Mr. Darwin’s opportunities for discovery in the hands of Jane Doe, with ahem, a little digital flair.



Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) observed in South Hero, Vermont

In our fast-paced society, filled with deadlines and constant connectivity, more and more people are finding that getting out into nature helps de-stress mind, body, and spirit. Researchers in Japan have studied the physiological health benefits of walking in the woods; they found that forest walks and viewing decreased heart rate, stress hormone levels, and blood pressure of participants when compared with walks and viewing in cities. Recently, other studies have found evidence that hiking in forests actually changes the way our brains work and improves immune system function.

iNaturalist truly is a revolutionary platform that allows every day people to connect with nature, that is, in ways that extend beyond pretty photos of summer lake front property or fields of wildflowers, displayed in a slideshow set to Bon Iver music (although beautiful). You get to connect with each other, to learn new species, to share your offbeat love for slugs with others who actually care, and you can do it anywhere in the world, at any time, with anyone you like by your side. Join iNaturalist today, it’s free. You’re on your way to being a citizen scientist, and you didn’t even know it when you brushed that spider away from your coffee cup this morning.

Algae species (Palmodictyon varium) observed in Sharon, New Hampshire

Don’t believe me? Take it from an iNaturalist user, who is a delightful mix of scientist, nature enthusiast, long-distance runner, and educator. Dr. Karolina Fučíková, who spends the bulk of her time as an algae scientist and professor of natural sciences at Assumption College in Massachusetts, began using iNaturalist as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut in 2015. Dr. Fučíková says that originally she saw iNaturalist, “as a way towards becoming a better, well-rounded naturalist,” having added, “I’ve definitely learned to recognize more species around me. It’s been a great addition to weekend hikes [and] long runs.” However, before long she began collecting data in the app to build a data repository for her research project on algae biodiversity and distribution.

Fučíková says that she sees “great potential in [iNaturalist] for student projects especially – [in that] they can record locality data (GPS coordinates, date and time of observation, photos of habitats) and document the observed specimen even if they don’t recognize the species. That gives the students a level of independence while still allowing me to check their data and store it all in one place.” In short, Fučíková views iNaturalist as a versatile tool with several uses and applications that connect the natural world to people who “science”.

She is not alone in this assessment; the growing community of “iNat” users has a social and competitive spirit to it. You can be the envy of your peers with the greatest numbers of observation or as Fučíková puts it, “cool sightings :).” So what are you waiting for? Get out there and join the iNaturalist community!

Shell mound pricklypear (Opuntia stricta) observed in St. Thomas

St. Andrew’s Cotton Stainer (Dysdercus andreae) observed in St. John


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